Thursday, September 2, 2010

Female pioneers in the law

I've always thought of women's entrance into the legal profession as something that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I was therefore shocked to read that Yale Law School did not admit female students until the late 1960s. (Deborah L. Rhode, The "No-Problem" Problem: Feminist Challenges and Cultural Change, 100 Yale L.J. (1991)) Upon rereading I realized that I was mistaken- it was Yale’s undergraduate school that was only desegregated in the 1960s. Its law school had been open to women since the early twentieth century.

Still, this got me thinking about, and then researching, women legal pioneers. As it turns out, the history of women in the law is much longer and more varied then I would have expected, and women have used a wide range of strategies to secure their entrance into the legal world.

One strategy was simply hiding gender. According to Rhode, Alice Rufie Blake Jordan tricked Yale Law School into admitting her through the simple subterfuge of putting her initials, rather than her full name, on her application. Yale responded by banning all women from the law school until 1919.

More dramatically, 13th century Italian Bettisia Gozzadini disguised herself as a man to study law in Bologna. Interestingly, the 13th century Bologna university seems to have been more tolerant of women than 19th century Yale. After Gozzadini's gender was revealed she continued to teach law at the university, albeit behind a screen so she would not distract male students. (Perhaps someone should have suggested this trick to the 19th century law schools that worried female "Portias" would distract male students.)

Another way women entered law was by turning sexism’s own stereotypes about the “gentler sex” and the “angel of the home” against it. Also according to Rhode, 19th century American feminists argued that “[u]nder some circumstances, a woman lawyer's ‘silver voice’ might ‘accomplish more than theseverity and sternness of a man could achieve.’”

Similarly, women have often gained initial entrance to the world of law through family law. British lawyers initially entered law through this area of practice in the early twentieth century and, more recently, the Saudi Arabian government proposed that female lawyers be allowed to appear in family law courts. Of course, women should be able to practice in all areas of law, but I appreciate these pioneers success in getting a foot in the door and opening up the legal field to present and future generations of women.

A few other notable female legal pioneers:
  • Margarte Brent was the first American female lawyer, trying over hundred cases beginning in the 1640s (!).

  • Lucy Terry Prince was a poet, farmer, and former slave, who, in 1797, waved aside her lawyer and became the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court.

  • Cornelia Sorabji was the first woman to earn a law degree from Oxford, the first female Indian barrister, and an activist for women's rights.

    N.P. said...

    While this post mentions many women who have paved the way for the rest of us, I have one more woman to add to this. It is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. After reading this article (it's at the bottom of this comment), she definitely deserves a position on the list. The best part of the speech that Justice Ginsburg delivered includes the 10th Circuit case that she and her husband worked on together. The crux of the case called Moritz v. Commissioner, was based on the denial of a care deduction allowed to single women but not to single men. Moritz, in this case was denied though he was caring for his ailing mother. My thought on the fact that this woman who has done so much for the concept of women in the law, is that she became known for her help in combatting discrimination against men. As women continue to take in roads into equality with men, it is nice to see that one such form of equality comes through the work of such a woman.

    N.P. said...

    I forgot to post the article:

    Kate said...

    I decided to focus on the earliest women lawyers rather than the most influential, but there are definitely a lot really impressive women who came at the end of the first wave/beginning of the second wave of women lawyers.

    Ginsburg is a great example and I'd also add Constance Baker Motley. She was litigating major civil rights cases before the Supreme Court in an era where women were expected to be housewives. The cases she fought won vital civil rights for African-American women and paved the way for later feminist litigation such as Ginsburg's.